The “catcher in the rye" proceeds from a mistake,
a mistake that we as readers and we as teachers are prone
to make as well. I’m not talking about the novel;
I’m referring to Holden’s fantasy vocation of
becoming a “catcher," the fantasy after which
the novel takes its name. I can’t help but wonder whether
Salinger ever regrets his choice of title…. How many
of us, at some time in our reading, have blundered into thinking
that “to become a catcher in the rye is the story’s
culminating vision"? You recall the passage I’m
referring to? - Where in response to his worries about
becoming a “phony" Holden says to his sister Phoebe:
You know what I’d like to be? I mean if I had my
goddam choice? What? Stop swearing. [Phoebe answers]…[Well] I keep
picturing all these little kids playing some game in this
big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and
nobody’s around - nobody big, I mean - except
me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff.
What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start
to go over the cliff - I mean if they’re running
and they don’t look where they’re going I have
to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s
all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher
in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s
the only thing I’d really like to be. I know it’s
That’s probably the most frequently quoted passage
from the novel and, as an image, was immortalized on the cover
of Time magazine. But remember how Phoebe points
out Holden’s misappropriation of Robert Burns? She makes
it clear that it’s about meeting, not catching.
Why, then, is it that students and professional readers alike
so easily fail to see that the end of The Catcher in the
Rye (the novel) is the end of the “catcher in the
rye" (the fantasy)? The fact that the fantasy has become
virtually the controlling image of the novel is problematic
not simply because it eclipses Holden’s most authentic
realization at the very end of his story, but also because
it can seduce us as teachers into becoming “catchers"
in the classroom.
As events unfold on that Advent weekend in New York City,
what comes to Holden arrives with the force of an epiphany
as he watches Phoebe go around on the carrousel in Central
Park. “All the kids," he observed, “kept
trying to grab for the gold ring, and so was old Phoebe, and
I was sort of afraid she’d fall off the goddam horse,
but I didn’t say anything or do anything. The thing
with kids is, if they want to grab for the gold ring, you
have to let them do it, and not say anything. If they fall
off, they fall off" (emphasis mine). When the carrousel
stops old Phoebe comes running over to Holden elated. Holden
gives her more money for more tickets, gets an unexpected
kiss, and sends her off for another try, successfully resisting
the temptation to be the catcher in the rye. The power in
this moment - not only for what he has realized but also
for what he has resisted - is signaled by his feeling
so “damn happy" all of a sudden that he was “damn
near bawling." In letting Phoebe go, he realizes that
there is really nothing that he can or should say or do to
protect her from the risks of the ride. Holden has overcome
his temptation to shape her experience of the carrousel with
his own “greater awareness." He has also discovered,
as Rilke said, that one happy smile going “around and
around," with no end in mind, “dazzles and dissipates/
over this blind and breathless game" we call life. If
ever there were a religious epiphany! At that moment The
Catcher ends and we are left with a brief, but important,
postscript in which Holden meets anew, re-members, even the
most objectionable encounters of his life.
So what has this to say about the way we approach The
Catcher in the Rye with our students? Well, I would think
that one thing it implies if it does not outright proclaim
is that we must think carefully about our need to control
the text, indeed, to “teach" The Catcher in
the Rye. That is, if we begin with the assumption that
our “greater awareness" of things professional
readers seem to delight in - things like plot, structure,
character analysis, critical commentary - grants us power
over the text (and by extension, then, power over our students)
we have unwittingly fallen into a “catcher" role
for ourselves however benign our intent.
Our role as teachers often places us in a position to assume
that our responsibility is “to get students to see"
what Salinger is doing and how he does it - to show them
what we believe they can’t see for themselves. Indeed,
to catch them before they tumble over a precipice into the
danger of allowing a text to become a story in which they
themselves are implicated and involved. Our apprehensions
may lead us to fear that precisely this kind of personal reading
and involvement with The Catcher in the Rye leads
to the making of a John Hinckley…to appropriating the
story as explanation or justification for one’s own
paranoia or delusion. As experienced and seasoned readers
familiar with the critical and interpretative literature that
has overgrown the text like a field of rye, have we not an
obligation to come between students and the precipice of wrong-headed
reading? Is not our job to generate analytical and critical
distance, to interpret metaphor, elucidate connections, and
Certainly such assumptions keep CliffsNotes and a number of state mandated “standards of learning"
instruments in business. CliffsNotes, in
fact, has a new expanded, 2000 edition of Salinger’s
The Catcher in the Rye. Not only does it offer a chapter-by-chapter
summary with commentary and a glossary of terms and idioms,
but also it contains an expanded critical section that treats
the major themes, symbols, and “The Coming of Age Genre."
And just to be sure students “get it," there is
a review section with Q & A, identification, essay questions,
and even creative projects calculated to demonstrate “standards
of learning" beyond all reasonable doubt. Just the sort
of approach you might assume is tailor-made for a student
like Holden…but you’d be wrong.
English was the one subject, you recall, that Holden didn’t
fail at Pencey Prep. It’s pretty clear that he likes
to read and its unarguably clear that he loves to write - remember
Allie’s baseball glove? When it came to the classroom
however, he just didn’t “do one damn thing the
way you’re supposed to…not one damn thing."
He flunked Vinson’s Oral Expression class because he
wouldn’t “unify and simplify." And contrary
to instructions about the need to focus and stay on task,
Holden preferred “digression." “I mean,"
says Holden, “lots of time you don’t know
what interests you most till you start talking about something
that doesn’t interest you most…. I like
it when somebody gets excited about something. [But] this
teacher…he could drive you crazy sometimes…I mean
he’d keep telling you to unify and simplify
all the time. Some things you just can’t do
that to. I mean you can’t hardly ever simplify and unify
something just because somebody wants you to."
And doesn’t he have a point?
We too like it when a student gets excited about something - and
especially literature, reading, thinking, writing! But how
does that happen? By ingesting CliffsNotes
or our notes? Or, by recovering the wide-eyed, palpitating,
heart-rending immediacy of the first time - the first
time a particular turn of phrase, a familiar voice, or an
intimate moment unexpectedly awakened a sense of knowing and,
of being known? It was that moment when no one stood between
us and those words, words sounding in our soul an unanticipated
welcome to our own life! To use the jargon, we could relate.
When asked, as a college student, how he would account for
his connection with The Catcher, Chris Parker in “Why
the Hell Not Smash All the Windows?" says,
I think the language is a big part of it - absurd
exaggeration and complete vagueness. “One of those
little English jobs that can do around 200 miles an hour."
“My parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece
if I told them…." It’s a way of being
casual - the use of “or something," “and
all," “the thing" in every other sentence.
The whole idea about being completely unconcerned about
anything - except absurd little things, idiosyncrasies.
Like [Holden’s] great interest in the ducks in Central
Park, and his complete lack of interest in school. [What’s
that all about?!]
In his book J.D. Salinger, James Miller, former
editor of College English, says, “what it’s
all about" is exactly what CliffsNotes and much of our concern in the classroom is not: “plot
irrelevancies." Miller suggests that the reason synopses
and so much critical interpretation are inadequate to The
Catcher is that they are inadequate to the experience
of the novel. What a skeleton of events or a character analysis
reveals, ironically, is how relatively unimportant
the events are. They show, by contrast, “how dependent
[the book] is on incidental detail…for its most moving
and profound meanings. Such detail and such crucially relevant
irrelevancies are woven into the book’s very texture."
Just like real life. This kind of detailing creates not only
character and atmosphere. It makes Holden authentic and real
- even with all of his hypocrisy and his own kind of
phoniness. These plot irrelevancies are Holden’s digressions,
the play of mind free of mediating constraints that dares
to be interested and even excitable.
Let’s take the ducks in Central Park…. In classroom
terms you could almost identify them as a unifying theme or
metaphor since Holden’s interest in them appears at
the very beginning of the story, a couple of times in the
middle, and then again near the end. In fact one might argue
that it was that walk over to the Park to “see what
the hell the ducks were doing, see if they were around or
not" that signals the denouement. Following that decision
to “see what the hell the ducks were doing," Holden
decides that he’s got to sneak back home and see old
Phoebe before heading west. It is only after Phoebe is on
the scene that the knots in Holden’s mind and heart
begin to loosen. But, of course, the ducks are neither a “major
theme" nor a “major symbol" in CliffsNotes because they are not a major theme or a major symbol in the
interpretative literature - at least as far as I have
read. So Holden’s interest in them, no matter how often
that interest surfaces, must indeed qualify as a plot irrelevancy.
And it is…until a mind like that of Chris Parker’s,
whom I quoted earlier, notices and begins to wander about
with Holden free from the rules of engagement. Then the ducks
in Central Park, or their absence, get interesting. Here’s
One of the things we know about The Catcher in the Rye
is that the version we have is not Mr. Salinger’s first.
He’d been exploring the themes and characters of the
novel in six other stories, the earliest of which appeared
in the Saturday Evening Post in 1944. Two of those
early stories, one from Collier’s and one from
The New Yorker, are substantially incorporated into
the novel as we have it. But before The Catcher was
published in 1951, Mr. Salinger submitted another 90-page
version for publication in 1946. Just before going to press
he withdrew it from publication and, obviously, went back
to work. In those years between the 1946 version and 1951,
Mr. Salinger discovered D.T. Suzuki and R.H. Blyth. Suzuki
and Blyth more than anyone else are responsible for the burst
of popular interest in Zen in America following the war. Protestations
not with standing, Mr. Salinger was studying Zen Buddhism
right along with the Beat poets and writers of the post-war
era. Knowing that, listen to this Zen mondo that R. H. Blyth
translates for us in his 1976 book Games Zen Masters Play.
It is interesting to consider in association with the ducks
in Central Park:
One day Hyakujo was out taking a walk with his master
Baso when a flock of ducks flew overhead. “What are
they" Baso asked. “They are wild ducks."
“Where are they flying?" [the master continued.]
“They have already flown away, Master." At that
point in the game, Baso suddenly grabbed Hyakujo’s
nose and twisted it until, overcome by pain, Hyakujo cried
out. “You say they have flown away," said Baso,
“but really they have been here from the very beginning."
[Blyth comments:] Hyakujo’s statement “they
have flown away" is true enough on the ordinary level
of common sense. They are no longer here but have gone someplace
else. But at the moment of acute pain his normal thinking
process was stopped and he saw directly what Baso was pointing
to in his statement, “they have been here from the
very beginning." The point of the statement is not
a new kind of logic or belief but a new way of seeing…an
“open secret" which has been right in front
of our eyes from the very beginning.
The ducks, whether physically evident or not, are
present to the mind that thinks about them.
Now I have no intention of suggesting that Holden’s
query about the ducks in Central Park is anything more than
curiosity, but isn’t it an odd kind of thing to ask
a New York taxi driver? From the beginning Holden wants to
know, “where did the ducks go?" When he blurts
his question out in the taxi, the driver’s response
is hardly surprising, “What’re ya tryna do, bud?
Kid me?" It’s our response as well…you can’t
tell me that Holden Caulfield is such an urban dunce that
he knows nothing about birds and migration however often he
brings it up. But what else are we to conclude? Either he
knows or he doesn’t and in any case the “answer"
(if you will) is obvious, an “open secret" which
has been right in front of his eyes from the very beginning.
After dropping Phoebe’s record, breaking it into about
fifty pieces and “damn near crying" because it
made him feel so terrible, he enters the park, wanders all
around the lagoon looking for the ducks, nearly falls in,
then finds a bench and sits shivering imagining that he will
get pneumonia and die. It’s not his own death that seems
so troubling, but “thinking how old Phoebe would feel."
In that moment of acute pain, his normal thinking process
stops, his mind clears, and he sees as plainly as ever he
will what he must do.
Now I think that one could go on to show how from this moment
on Holden awakens to that “open secret" which
has been right in front of his eyes from the very beginning.
But rather than pursue that academic exercise, I want to shift
our attention back to what the ducks in Central Park suggest
to us about teaching (or not teaching) The Catcher in
Holden’s mind first drifts toward the ducks on page
thirteen while he’s telling old Spenser “how most
people didn’t appreciate how tough it is being a teacher."
Then comes this bit of trenchant musing to himself: “I’m
lucky, though. I mean I could shoot the bull to old Spencer
and think about those ducks at the same time. It’s funny.
You don’t have to think too hard when you talk to a
teacher." Insulting? Maybe…but I don’t think
that’s to the point. His point is that as teachers we’re
so programmed and predictable because we spend more energy
on producing what passes for measurable achievement than we
do cultivating imaginative minds. By “shooting the bull"
Holden is “following the program," saying what
he knows old Spenser, teachers, want to hear. Holden has “learned
his teacher" so well that he conducts his conversation
almost mechanically, leaving his mind free to wander. But
in the process he realizes just how “poles apart"
he and old Spenser really are, and how empty the conversation
can’t help but be. It’s a painful realization,
and not only for students like Holden. It is devastating for
authors as well, authors who, in Mr. Salinger’s view,
are poles apart from their interpreters. His disdain for the
intellectual arrogance of the northeastern establishment,
Ivy League snobs, and professional readers like English professors
and literary critics is well documented. Bruce Bawer reminds
us in “Salinger’s Arrested Development,"
“Referring to a controversy between Sinclair Lewis and
the critic Bernard De Voto over the merits of Lewis’s
novel, Arrowsmith, Mr. Salinger [once] observed that
De Voto was probably in the right but had ‘no right
to be right.’ In a just world [he claimed] novelists
like Lewis would be criticized not by ‘small-time’
opinionizers like De Voto but ‘by men of their own size’—that
is, by writers of fiction."
It is such a tempting affliction to know it all! Mr. Salinger
himself succumbed to it, and despised himself for it. Shortly
before The Catcher was published, he was invited
to speak to a short story class at Sarah Lawrence. According
to William Maxwell in the 1951 Book of the Month Club News,
Salinger said, “I went, and I enjoyed the day, but I
wouldn’t want to do it again. I got very oracular and
literary. I found myself labeling all the writers I respect.
A writer, when he’s asked to discuss his craft, ought
to get up and call out in a loud voice just the names
of the writers he loves." No need for labeling.
No need for interpretation or justification or explanation.
But we’re so schooled for doing it! These labels and
interpretations, Mr. Salinger seems to be suggesting, too
easily eclipse or supplant the writing itself. The writing
deserves, indeed, needs to be met directly, immediately - amateurishly.
In Zen one strives for what the masters call “beginner’s
mind," a mind that sees directly into the true nature
of oneself and one’s world. Beginner’s mind is
a mind uncluttered by years of being taught - being told - what
to think and feel, how to think or feel, and even when to
think and feel. The games Zen players play are games to uncover
our original mind, our beginner’s mind - strategies
designed, first, to pare away all of the clutter and opinion
that actually filters, shapes, and colors our perception of
everything. Overwhelmed by such clutter, overpowered by all
we’ve been given to believe, we can scarcely be said
to have what Emerson called an “original relationship"
with the universe. What makes Holden so compelling is that
we can see that he is just as overwhelmed by what he criticizes
as Mr. Salinger was at Sarah Lawrence. He is believable because
he is just as much a phony as we are, and is sickened by it.
We approach life with a beginner’s mind when we remove
what comes between us and our experience of the world - or
of literature. Beginner’s mind is the mind of Mr. Salinger’s
“amateur reader," to whom he dedicates his last
published book, to "anyone who just reads and runs."
It might be argued that “reading and running"
is something Mr. Salinger knows a bit about. He had as rough
a time negotiating high school as did Holden, finally graduating
from Valley Forge Military Academy in 1936. He did some time
at NYU and Ursinus College, without graduating, before sitting
in on a short-story writing class taught by Whit Burnett in
1939 at Columbia. That experience changed his life. Burnett,
then editor of Story magazine, recognized young Mr. Salinger’s
talent and published his first story in 1940. In 1964, Mr.
Salinger was invited to write the Introduction for Story
Jubilee: 33 Years of Story. Rather than the expected
“Introduction," what he chose to do was to pen
“A Salute to Whit Burnett," a tribute that didn’t
appear until 1975. It is the only piece of non-fiction that
Mr. Salinger has published. It’s important because of
what we learn about good teaching - at least as far as
one student is concerned - but also because it comes as
close as anything to seeing the ducks on the pond.
The tribute begins by making it clear that Whit Burnett saw
the classroom not as a staging area to display his own personal
interests or to use for his own professional advancement,
but as an arena to serve the interests of the “Short
Story" itself. (Mr. Salinger, by the way, capitalizes
“Short Story," as if to emphasize its integrity
as a living form.) In Mr. Salinger’s words, Burnett
“conducted a short-story course, never mugwumped over
one…. He plainly had no intention of using fiction as
a leg up for himself." In other words, teaching was
about meeting rather than catching. Burnett
was able to get out of the way and create a moment for meeting - not
between himself and his students, but between his students
and the story. Here’s what Mr. Salinger says:
In class, one evening, Mr. Burnett felt himself in the
mood to read Faulkner’s “That Evening Sun Go
Down" out loud, and he went right ahead and did it…most
singularly and undescribably….Almost anybody picked
at random from a crowded subway car would have given a more
dramatic or “better" performance. But that was
just the point. Mr. Burnett very deliberately forbore to
perform. He abstained from reading beautifully. It was as
if he had turned himself into a reading lamp…. By
and large, he left you on your own to know how the characters
were saying what they were saying. You got your Faulkner
straight, without any middlemen between. Not before or since
have I heard a reader make such instinctive and wholehearted
concessions to a born printed-page writer’s needs
and, aye, rights…. Not once…did Burnett come
between the author and his beloved silent reader. [He left
Faulkner] intact, unfinagled with, suitably content.
Well, this is rich. The relationship “between the author
and his beloved silent reader" as Mr. Salinger sees
it is very nearly sacred. The author has a “right"
to meet his beloved on her own terms, “intact and unfinagled
with." The skilled teacher, then, should be less concerned
about having command over the text and more concerned with
forbearance and illumination. It’s such a wonderful
metaphor! How easily we confuse illumination with interpretation.
We assume that to illuminate text means to give our students
our own reading. But illumination is always invisible, it
reveals without itself being seen.
The irony for us, then, is that what students need to know
about The Catcher is already there in the reading - not
in the analysis we make, however textually implicit or logically
consistent we believe our insights to be. That’s another
literature. What students need to know is there in the unmediated
magic that transpires between the author and his beloved silent
reader. Our job is not to mugwump over The Catcher in
the Rye, but to become their “reading lamp,"
to illumine a story our students already know and are searching
for a way to tell in their own voice. It’s about meeting,
not catching - make no mistake about that.
From guest contributor Lawrence Bowden